As Within, So Without

I don’t think I know anyone who hasn’t willed something into being at some point in time. Whether it’s finding housing when we need it the most, a new job, a healthy relationship, a family, or a specific vision for a life, most adults eventually hit a point where the only thing that keeps them going is their willpower. 

I got to see that power in action on a fairly large scale a little over 20 years ago. I’m a former Marine and when I went to boot camp back in the late 90s, there was a final hurdle to graduation called the Crucible. At that time, it was a 54 hour stretch of forced marches with a heavy pack, reaction courses, very little food and very little rest. It was designed to be tough. It was designed to break some of us. 

On my Crucible, we left for our adventure in the rain. The socks I was wearing got wet and formed a ridge by my heels. That ridge, over many miles, cost me the layers of skin where my socks were rubbing. The wound was a roughly half-dollar coin sized circle of exposed flesh on both heels. I still have the scars. In context, that injury was pretty manageable. Many of my cohort got hurt a lot worse. 

I will never forget the return to base at the end of the Crucible. We were so beat up – taking turns carrying each other’s packs and sometimes each other. Every single one of us exhausted beyond the telling of it, and most of us injured. What I learned during that sunrise as we came over the bridge is that there is a force within humans that allows us to continue walking when our bodies can’t do it any more. There’s a power inside each of us that will take us past the limitations of our physical world. 

This is what I mean by willing something into being. When everything else gives out, there is a power that remains. 

I’ve been thinking about that moment a lot lately. About the way there’s something in us that can keep fighting even when the obstacles seem insurmountable. Right now, there are many things that feel daunting. We’re facing another ugly election year with a conservative candidate who openly espouses authoritarianism. Climate change is accelerating. Regressive bills targeting the queer community are on the legislative agenda everywhere. People of color continue to be subject to police violence and white supremacist systems that seek to take their power, agency, and resources. Unjust wars and horrific violence are playing out on the world stage. 

This is a hard year, a hard timeline to be part of. And it’s all too easy to feel helpless in the face of the onslaught. These are big, complicated problems that no single person can solve on their own. 

My primary faith path is Paganism, and many Pagans include the practice of magic in their spirituality. Magic, for us, is not the hollywood explosion of sparks and glitter we see in fantasy movies. Our definition of magic is the ability to create change in accordance with will. To will something into being. 

Magic, at its core, is about agency. There’s a reason that magic has long been the provenance of the poor and the marginalized. If you have resources, you don’t need magic. You can just buy whatever you want. But if there’s no money to go to the doctor, you need to see someone who can stop a wound from bleeding. If there’s no money for rent, you need to find a way to get your hands on some cash quickly. To this day, magic use tends to be more present in the middle and lower classes. We are the ones the system does not serve. And so we must find a way to bend reality to our wills. To survive. 

Magical thinking gets a lot of kicking around, but it’s always good to look at the source when we’re evaluating criticism. It does not serve the powerful in our world to have a disruptive force running wild in the poor and marginalized communities. Time after time, in culture after culture, the powerful come for the magic users. They come for those who use the power of our wills to create change that does not align with the goals of those who would exploit us. Users of magic are portrayed as evil, dangerous, unstable. Are they? Or are they just inconvenient to a system that wants all of the cogs to continue to turn? That wants to churn people up and spit them out without consequence? 

There is a force within all of us that can push past boundaries, overcome exhaustion, and create change. But we’ve been taught to obey, to avoid magical thinking, to submit to the needs of the powerful. 

There is a phrase within Pagan practice: As within, so without. What is true for our inner world becomes true for our outer world. As a teacher of Pagan and magical practice, one of the first things I have my students do is begin to affirm and support the strength of their will. There’s a lot of unlearning and relearning we must do in order to use our wills more effectively. Some of that is simply learning to claim our own power and turn down the internal messaging that we are helpless. Some of it is more practical. 

We know now, through behavioral science, that willpower is a finite resource. This is why it’s easy to make healthy choices early in the day but often difficult to get off the couch in the evening: we use our willpower all day long and at the end of the day, that internal reserve of determination is tapped out. We also know that willpower is something that can be increased through practice. Some classic examples are developing a concentration-based meditation practice, choosing to drink using the opposite hand than usual, or carrying around something tempting but not consuming it. 

If we bring the threads of mysticism and behavioral science together, we add even more tools: we can strengthen willpower by wearing colors we associate with power and sovereignty, creating an altar or shrine to our own strength, offering ourselves blessings and stories of agency, or engaging in regular spiritual practices of prayer and concentration that align us to our highest and most empowered self. When we stand in our power, the obstacles before us remain quite real, but we’re not fighting a narrative of powerlessness or learned helplessness at the same time. It’s amazing what is possible when we aren’t fighting ourselves. When we haven’t already decided that no solution will work.  

As within, so without. A stronger inner world leads to a stronger presence in the outer world. The transformation we work upon ourselves can be replicated outside of us. The crises of our world are bigger than each of us individually and also, we are not without power. So what does that look like? There are a couple good rules of three in the Pagan world that help us move forward without being overwhelmed. One rule of three was described by author and teacher Byron Ballard: pick three things you really care about and focus your energy there. Maybe one is food insecurity, one is clean water, and one is education. Then, figure out who’s doing that work locally and get involved. Byron refers to this concept as interconnected circles on the ground. Our individual willpower does more locally than it can globally. 

Artist, author, and teacher Laura Tempest Zakroff recently posited her own rule of three: choose one personal goal, change, or need. Choose one goal or change for your local community that you can directly impact. And, choose one goal for society at large. Then, examine how you can make an impact or change at each tier. What is the mundane work you can do? What is the magical work – where can you direct your will? When we begin to see changes in those personal and local areas of focus, it allows us to bring more willpower and energy to the bigger fights.

Both of these rules of three also require one other thing: trust the people around you to choose their own rules of three. We cannot do it all, and we run the risk of burning ourselves out if we try to. But if we do some of it and our community does some of it, many things are possible. We need to avoid the urge to tear others down because their own three focuses are different than ours. Together, it all gets done. 

Along with opening ourselves to greater force of will through longer term self-work, there are some useful techniques in the Pagan world for tapping into a little more strength when we need it most. 

The first is a technique called grounding. This practice allows us to feel more steady and centered, as well as more supported. When I’m going into a conversation or situation that I know will make my anxiety flare up, I ground first. So, let’s try it together. Settle deeper into your seat and bring your eyes to a half gaze, or let them close completely. Feel your feet on the earth and your body supported by your seat. Allow your breath to deepen and lengthen. 

Now, from the soles of your feet, imagine roots spreading out and down into the earth. Feel them connecting to the rich soil and deep stones, creating an interconnected web of stability beneath you. Feel how securely you are held, how strong the earth is. Now, imagine some of that strength flowing up to you through your roots. You might feel this as warmth, or imagine it as green light. Feel strength and stability rising through your feet, your legs, flowing into your core, your heart, rising all the way up to the top of your head. Gently open your eyes whenever you’re ready. 

Feels good, doesn’t it? What we align to, what we connect to, influences how we feel. It’s important to remember that we’re surrounded by a web of media these days, and most of it is blasting distress signals of some sort. Even when the media around you isn’t specifically talking about some of the challenges on the table, it’s vying for your attention. And that’s just our devices – the majority of the people around us are also stressed and nervous. Our species is designed to pick up on the emotions of others – it helps us cooperate. But that hardwired empathy has a shadow side. We need to be able to connect to strength when we must stand in the face of opposition. 

Another technique that anyone can use is the concept of archetypes. Within each of us, there are a multitude of selves. We are all someone’s child. We are often someone’s parent or guide as well. We are someone’s friend, someone’s lover, we are the self that’s present at work, or at school. We are the self that’s present at social gatherings. All those different versions of self are real – they do not negate each other. And we can think of those selves as different archetypes we shift into. This behavior that we all do naturally can also help us impact our inner and outer worlds. 

Soften your gaze or close your eyes again for a moment. Connect to your wise self. Think about who you are when your best judgment and lived experience is at the surface. 

Now, connect to your warrior self. Your defender self. The self that protects those who cannot advocate for themselves. Think about who you are when you act on behalf of another. Think about who you are when you feel strong, protective, and full of agency. 

Relax once more into your community self. Think about who you are when we are all together, seeking to build a better future through this beloved community. Gently open your eyes whenever you’re ready. 

The last technique I’ll give you is one you already know but have probably forgotten about. When a Pagan sets a spell, sets their will to manifesting an outcome, they develop a clear vision of that outcome first. If we don’t know where we’re going, or what the goal looks like, it’s hard to choose the right steps to achieve our vision. This practice is important for personal change as well as community change. A clear vision of our desired outcome is a map that we can follow. 

The beloved community will not build itself. And, no one is coming to do the hard work of repairing our world for us. It is going to take every single one of us wielding our wills, raising our voices, and becoming stronger and more resilient to create the world to come. Remember – you have an unusual power, a reserve of strength that can push past limitations. Feed it. Strengthen your will. Build practices around your sovereignty. Use the power of transformation, the ability we all have to start over again, to shift the narrative you tell yourself. Incorporate practices that make you feel strong. Remember to ground. Remember to align to the self you need to be in the moments when that identity is needed most. 

May the fire of your will be the light that breaks through shadow. May the power of your own sovereignty be the pathway to a brighter future. As within, so without. So may it be. 

This sermon was first offered at the Unitarian Universalists of Gettysburg on Sunday, March 17th.

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